Thursday Thoughts On Leadership: How Leaders Create Something Out of Nothing

In his book “The Score Takes Care of Itself”, Bill Walsh asks the question, “Should desperation be the primary determinant for seeking new direction, innovative solutions?” He asks this because when he found himself as the quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns, in charge of an offense with no ability to run the ball and a backup quarterback with a weak arm, he had to think of something. He couldn’t change the calendar. They had to play on Sunday. They couldn’t move up the player draft and restock players. He had to face the challenge each week of figuring out how to move the ball on offense with limited options. His answer…creating a short precision pass-oriented offense that would take advantage of the entire field and five receivers, led by a quarterback, Virgil Carter, who, while not able to throw hard or very far, was extremely accurate. He created something out of nothing. The West Coast Offense. In fact, it wasn’t really created from nothing. He was forced by circumstance to re-evaluate the situation he faced and all the assets available to him and find a solution to his problem. As he put it, “… it was created out of existing assets that only needed to be ‘seen’ and then capitalized on in new ways.” In his book, Walsh outlines four main concepts that can be used to model your own progression in any endeavor:

  1. Success doesn’t care which road you take to get to its doorstep. Walsh did not let it bother him that many traditionalists looked down at his new style. In a manly game like football, you had to run the ball. As one executive sneered, “It’s not real NFL football”, but in football as in life, we only remember the result and after a while, those naysayers had to figure out how this new offense was beating them and in fact how to copy it.
  2. Be bold. Remove fear from the unknown – that is, change – from your mind. Try new things, even if it is just a new wrinkle on the old. One of the secrets of Walsh’s offense was that he simply moved the point of attack from behind the line of scrimmage, where the defense was concentrated, to down the filed where there was only one or two defenders at most.
  3. Desperation should not drive innovation. Don’t wait until you run out of options to try new innovations. Although he installed his offense only after losing his starting quarterback. In hindsight, the team would have been better off starting the back-up and running the new offense from the start as that system ultimately proved more successful than the traditional offense they ran before the change.
  4. Be obsessive in looking for the upside in the downside. It would be a mistake to think that Walsh thought of his new offense after their starting quarterback was hurt. In fact, it was born by watching Virgil Carter in practice and on film before he knew he had to turn the offense over to him. He new that Carter did not possess a strong enough arm to make the throws the current offense called for. Because Carter was smart, agile and accurate, Walsh started to design plays that took advantage of those skills. Of course, once he became the starter, he had to change all the plays. But because he had already started to look for the upside in his backup quarterbacks limitations, he was ready.